Five hundred years ago today, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg, defiantly signalling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and the end of the Catholic Church’s domination of the Christian world. Forthwith, believers would be free to study the scripture by themselves, and to be reconciled to God by faith without requiring the Church as an intermediary. Now is a time for believers to celebrate the importance of the Reformation and the advancement of the unity of the gospel.

That’s the story, anyway. Like much history, the reality is perhaps a bit more prosaic. Some thought Luther went too far and worked to have him excommunicated, while other reformers thought he didn’t go far enough and retained too many Catholic inventions. My own denomination thought that the Reformation wasn’t far enough back, and that we should return to the teachings of the first century church to better reflect True Christianity. Holy Wars were kindled, and an earnest desire for truth led to division (a story that has played out many times since).

What’s special about the Reformation?

Sometimes, it sounds like the Reformation split Christianity into two main “sides”: Catholic and Protestant. But it certainly wasn’t the first division. For example, the Great Schism in 1054 saw the Eastern Orthodox churches separate from the Roman Catholic Church. And it certainly wasn’t the last division, as many different Protestant denominations have separated from each other since. Nor were the reformers the first to raise some of these problems. Groups like the Waldensians and Wycliffe and the Lollards had done so long before (and earned the enmity of the church).

However, the Reformation was a period where widespread change occurred across Europe. We also still have Lutherans, and Calvinists, and Baptists, though how similar they are to those who started the Reformation is open to question.

Ultimately, one of the biggest changes from the reformation was around the question of authority. Was the church (and the humans running it) the final arbiter of correct Christian teaching and the way to approach God? Or was it scripture and faith in God? Ultimately, though, even a “scripture alone” approach required scripture to be interpreted by humans. The printing press made more copies of scripture available, but also made differing interpretations of scripture much more widely available than they had been.

The problem with church indulgences

The main problem Luther addressed in the 95 theses was the problem of selling indulgences. It seems he wanted the church to reform from within: there was no plan to defy the church or start a split. And he raised some important problems. For example:

They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

This makes for a great sales pitch, but it is unjustifiable exploitation of the people. Why should a religious class enrich themselves at the expense of the masses? Building a beautiful church doesn’t justify obtaining the money for it under false pretenses. After all, those who collected the money could not even demonstrate the existence of purgatory, let alone that souls had just left it. It had to be taken on faith and the authority of the church.

Luther’s next point raised the issue of greed and conflict of interest:

It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.

Certainly human greed can play a part, but I think this quote reveals deeper problems. I don’t believe in God, but the God I hear many talk about is supposed to show impartial, righteous judgement. Being able to buy your way into his good books with human money is hardly a testament to this righteous judgement. Let alone taking a fellow human at his word that he is able to order a favourable judgement from God on receipt of that money. As Luther mentioned later, if the pope really has the authority to free any from purgatory, why not free everyone from love rather than freeing some for money? (note that similar arguments can be made for God himself).

Now it may just be my lay preaching Christadelphian background, but I think some of these problems persisted after the Reformation. Having a paid clergy increases the risk of having a special class of people through whom people relate to their God. The conflicts of interest definitely apply to those who preach the prosperity gospel, where people are encouraged to give to the preacher or to the church in order to receive God’s blessings. And, once again, a big problem is that these claims aren’t verifiable - the followers have to take promises of blessings on faith.

Going slightly off topic, this problem doesn’t stop with money. Luther assumed that sin exists and that God is able to forgive it by his grace if a believer truly repents. But we are no more able to demonstrate the existence of sin, divine forgiveness, and the future judgement of God than we are the existence of God. We must take the word of fellow humans that we are sinners: broken people who need Christ to make us whole. And if, as I suspect, there is no afterlife, we will never even know that we were wrong all along.

The big split

However, while Luther did not completely reject papal authority, he did proclaim the authority of the God-given gospel over human teaching. His objections also struck at the authority of the Pope and the clergy to act in the place of God in granting forgiveness of sins. In a few years, this led to Luther’s excommunication. Similar objections from other theologians and leaders meant the Reformation movement grew in power and influence.

Translating the Bible

The early reformers saw clear messages in scripture which were often at odds with the practice of the established church. And given the importance they placed on the authority of scripture, it is not surprising that they made attempts to make it more widely available. One of Luther’s early tasks was translating the Bible into German. He wasn’t the only one to translate. Erasmus had already produced a Greek New Testament, and Tyndale was the first to translate it into English. Both wanted the text to be available to ordinary labourers, not just to the religious elite.

A proliferation of denominations

Like many before and since, I’m sure the reformers thought that there was one true message of scripture. The reason it had not been found was because the scripture wasn’t well enough known. Once scripture was made known, everyone would accept True Christianity and be happy.

Unfortunately, the reality was very different. Luther, for example, seems to have tried to be moderate, and was attacked by the Catholic Church for going too far and by other reformers for not going far enough. Different groups and denominations sprung up with different interpretations of the same scriptures, and the number of denominations continues to grow today.

In emphasising the authority of scripture over the church, the reformation allowed individuals to interpret scripture for themselves. Since the Bible contains many apparent contradictions on important areas like grace vs works, that led to differences. As different groups prioritised and reconciled these texts differently, they came to different opinions on the message of scripture. Many argue that these differences are just differences of opinion, not salvation issues. But there is no agreement on which points are salvation issues, either.

My Christadelphian perspective may be valuable here. Our teachings were considered heretical by the majority of Christians, and yet we knew we had “The Truth” (as practiced by the first century church) and were quite able to support our teachings from scripture. However, even within our small denomination there were substantial debates over the “true” meaning of scripture, some of which led to further divisions.

Long ago, I wanted to be able to conclusively find the Bible message on any topic I cared about. I even developed Bible software that would assist me to do that (see here for more). Right now, though, I’m not convinced that there is one coherent “message of scripture”. In fact, I’m not sure it makes sense to expect such a message to be drawn from a collection of books written by different authors at different times with different purposes. And the many denominations that have formed since the reformation certainly don’t give me confidence.

I think it’s important to remember that the existence of many denominations isn’t just a bug in the perfect script of the Reformation. The Reformation was started by people who questioned the status quo and wanted to go back to the Bible. Those same attributes that have led to dissenting groups, both mainstream ones and outliers like the Christadelphians. The widespread availability of the Bible has led many to their own particular version of the faith, but it has also led many to unbelief.

I have heard a Catholic apologist say that this is why believers need the authority of the church, not just “scripture alone” which no-one can agree on. And I think it is difficult to say “We reject the authority of the Roman Catholic church, but affirm the arbitrary authority of our own particular church or faith tradition”. In principle, it is all based on scripture, not on tradition. But in practice, there are limits to how flexibly you can interpret certain scriptures and question certain traditions and remain in the same denomination. Though I guess it is much easier to maintain unity if you are less clear about what you actually believe.

The human cost

The Reformation had a real human cost: wars, massacres, riots, and the burning of heretics. Some online sources quote 50 million dead, which seems incredibly high to me. After all, some of the events are wars between different nations and different cultures, and it’s hard to tell how much blame religion should bear for political struggles. But it is true that in England religion governed who could wear a crown, who could serve in government, and who was at risk of their life merely for their private religious observances.

What is clear, though, is that it wasn’t just the Inquisition, and it wasn’t just wars between Catholics and Protestants. Different Protestant groups clashed over interpretations of the same scripture. Teachers like Servetus and some Anabaptists were executed for differing from the newly established orthodoxy, often with the approval of key reformers.

Ecumenicalism and unity

Unity and love were supposed to be defining characteristics of Jesus’ church, and I’m not sure the Reformation contributed to this. In recent years there have been calls for the different churches to be able to work together. The Catholic Church has reached out to the Orthodox churches, the Anglican church, the Lutheran church, and probably others to try and re-unite. St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne proudly states that it was the second Anglican church which the Pope visited, way back in 1986 (more than 30 years ago). At the time, the Pope lit a Unity candle, and yet I am sure that many Protestant denominations would join with Christadelphians in stating candles have no particular place in Christian services.

Some want complete unity with other denominations. In fact, they view unity as a Christian command more important than the details that divide them. Others wish to join together in the fight on particular social issues, while continuing to differ on religious beliefs. Still others maintain that the differences that divided them still exist.

Keeping separate

To those wishing to keep separate, the cry is “Was the Reformation fought in vain?” And to those drawing inspiration from Revelation, the Roman Catholic Church is sometimes considered the prostitute of Revelation 17, the enemy of God. If that is so, jumping to the next chapter makes the message clear: “Come out of her, my people”. Believers are not to be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers, and different denominations differ on where they draw those lines.

The messages of unity and the messages of separation are both written into the Bible. I’m sure punishments are promised both for those who exclude people they should include, and for those who include people they should exclude. But how do you reconcile these conflicting messages?

So, did the Reformation succeed?

Well, it broke some of the grip of the Catholic Church on Europe, and began to bring scripture to the masses. It encouraged a personal relationship with God and a trust in his grace. But it also began with division, and ended up giving believers more things to argue over and ultimately to divide and fight over. I’m not yet in the camp of “Religion poisons everything”, but it is a little depressing how the search for truth divides people rather than uniting them.

So, did it find the True Church of Christ? Well, maybe with better access to scripture it corrected the worst excesses of the Catholic Church and got closer. But I doubt it found the True Church, mostly because I no longer believe such a thing exists.

However, even assuming it does exist, how would I be able to find it among so many other denominations? Maybe I would need to work out my own interpretation of scripture and start my own church?